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Now's Your Chance to Help Decide the Debate: Are Interpreters Born or Made?

No matter what part of the interpreting profession you are in, you have probably had the debate as to whether the ability to interpret is something you are born with or that can be taught.

That debate makes the proposed English to English (EtoE) study on interpreting performance skills that the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) is undertaking important to all of us, regardless of whether we work in healthcare settings. And what's more, it's worth plonking down a few dollars to support.

Dubbed "The Interpreter Testing Revolution," CCHI is running an Indiegogo campaign to fund research that could have far-reaching implications for our profession. The campaign seeks to raise money so CCHI can find out if it is possible to develop English to English testing that can predict a candidate's interpreting skills for language pairs where no language-specific certification test exists or is likely to be developed.

InterpretAmerica Co-President Katharine Allen sat down with CCHI Chair Margarita Bekker last week to get a better understanding of what CCHI is hoping to achieve with its EtoE study and fundraising campaign. The interview yielded many articulate gems about challenges facing the continued professionalization of interpreters and how research and testing play an under-appreciated yet key role.

We are at a time in the field where we deserve to be studied, with real statistical and psychometric tools. We deserve validity.


CCHI Chair Margarita Bekker

Question: What do you most want people to know about the EtoE study?

Bekker: It’s a unique study. If you look at the Indiegogo video you’ll see that it is a revolutionary study.  At CCHI we commonly hear complaints that no one studies us (healthcare interpreters) and when they do, they are typically small, underpowered studies conducted by well-meaning grad students with very small sample sizes of 10 and 20 participants. 

We believe we are at a time in the field where we deserve to be studied, with real statistical and psychometric tools. We deserve validity.

To do this, we need a large sample of study subjects who are working interpreters. We have a hypothesis, that is possible to develop a universal, English-only performance-based exam that can predict interpreting skill. We don’t know if it’s true or not, so before developing a test we want to conduct a valid research study to determine if it is.

Question: Why do we need an English to English study? Shouldn't we be focused on developing language-specific interpreting tests?

Bekker: There are two big problems no one is talking about. First, as trainers we "know" that a set of skills inherent to interpreting (beyond language proficiency) exist. There is even wide consensus about what core interpreting skills are, such as short term memory, comprehension of the source material, analysis skills, etc. But these skills have not really been studied in a way that can be validated. 

We have identified these skills as a profession. There is literature about the kind of skills that interpreters should have, but not robust studies. There are all sorts of theories and even some language neutral aptitude tests that some are offer, but which have not been validated. The fact that some organizations use tests like this is a positive precedent, but we are at a place that we need a test that actually works.

The second huge problem in our field that we don’t talk about enough is that we will never have enough psychometrically valid tools to assess skills in each language. We don't have the resources to create language specific tests for every language in less demand or of lesser diffusion.

So, as an organization we are taking the risk of conducting this study. We might spend all this time, money and energy and get a negative answer to our hypothesis. We might be told we can’t develop that kind of exam. But even a negative answer will help us know what we can and can’t do with interpreter testing. And that is critical knowledge.

Question: The EtoE Study isn't actually the beginning of this process. What have you done to get to this point?

Bekker: Before launching a study, we wanted to take the time to talk with stakeholders and focus groups to get their perspective on an English to English study. We talked to healthcare, conference and court interpreters. We wanted everyone's ideas because all interpreters need the same skills. We talked to trainers and instructors, and to linguists whose insights were also beneficial. We talked to agency owners and heard about their challenges. Based on everyone's feedback, we came up with the idea of the EtoE study BEFORE creating some kind of exam and seeing how it works out.  90% of those we spoke with supported the idea of the study.

You can see the results of the national focus group conversations here:

Question: What benefits do you see for our profession from this study and test?

Bekker: The beauty of this study, if we prove that we can test interpreting skills through an English to English test, is that it can be used to show interpreting ability in any setting, not just in healthcare. But also in court and conference settings, and educational settings. Agencies and institutions invest time and money in training and interpreter development. It can be a waste of money when you train people who clearly are not going to be interpreters. 

We may be able to provide data that a person has a good chance to become a good interpreter or already has interpreting skills. Such a test could be used as pre-certification test or to determine current interpreting skills. We don’t have anything that is that valid right now.

The possibility for how this test could be used are endless. I think there are uses that I can’t even think of right now.  Whatever data we get will be valuable and we will share it with the public.

Question: As we wrap up, can you tell us a bit about how the study will be conducted?

Bekker: You can get all the details on our Indiegogo campaign page and the CCHI website. Basically, we will be looking for volunteers in Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic. They will take an exam that is English only - then they will take the CCHI CHI exam in their language pair. Psyshometricians will make whatever statistically valid conclusions arise from comparing the results. 

In other words, we hope to be able to see if when candidates pass a language-neutral exam, will that have a statistically valid predictive value for whether they would pass the same exam in their language pair?

We’ve given ourselves a year. We are doing everything at the same time: fundraising for the study and developing all the specific things we need for the studies. We are looking for subject matter experts, we are contacting testing sites, and we are working with psychometricians to develop appropriate protocols.

It is a cutting edge study and for the first time, we, the interpreters, can influence the future of our profession. Our support for this project has the potential to change how interpreters are tested and trained. 

How to Donate:

As this blog goes to press, there are just over two weeks left in the campaign. Please consider donating to this important initiative!

If we don’t study ourselves no one else will and if we don’t fundraise for ourselves no one else will.

1 Comment

I feel that is a bad idea to have English to English testing...And here are the arguments:

1)The email starts with a bad English already:

"InterpretAmerica Co-President Katharine Allen sits down with CCHI Chair Margarita Bekker last week to get a better understanding of what CCHI is hoping to achieve with its groundbreaking English to English interpreting..."

"Sits down...last week..."

2) We had a similar debate in school (Master's) about managers being born or made...

I disagreed to anybody being a manager by training him/her....

My argument: Not any dog can be a sled dog, and not any sled dog can be "trained" to be an alpha dog...We all love all kinds of dogs but they can't be trained that…

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